Insecurity impedes relief efforts in flood-stricken Pakistan

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 16, 2012 

MULTAN, Pakistan — Western humanitarian groups have accelerated their plans to exit areas of Pakistan that were devastated in the 2010 floods after a spate of aid worker kidnappings and amid growing tensions with Pakistani security agencies.

Relief agency managers based in flood-hit central Pakistan said the kidnappings, most recently of two European aid workers last month, had forced changes in their security rules. Save the Children, a U.S. charity that's working in the area, said the new rules had hampered the work of humanitarian nongovernmental organizations, particularly by limiting working hours in rural communities.

"Since the kidnappings, it has become clear that adherence to security guidelines — such as returning to Multan city by dusk — has become a necessity. A single kidnapping puts an NGO's entire operations on hold, and makes humanitarian programs very difficult to deliver," said Iqbal Shah, who oversees Save the Children's work in the Dera Ghazi Khan, Muzaffargarh and Rajanpur districts of central Pakistan.

The three districts, to the west of Multan, have been a recruiting ground for Pakistani militant groups affiliated with the Taliban and al Qaida, security analysts based here said.

The 2010 floods destroyed the homes and farms of some 21 million Pakistanis. Several million people remain homeless and dependent on humanitarian assistance.

Instead of ramping up their efforts, however, Western charities are delegating more activities to Pakistani organizations, the managers said.

Save the Children, which has had an emergency response team here since August 2010, has spent $55 million on nutrition and protection programs for children and on work opportunities for parents who enroll their children in schools the charity rebuilt.

But badly needed new programs now look unlikely to materialize because potential donors no longer can visit the flood-hit areas because of the insecurity, relief agency managers said. Shah said the recent kidnappings caused the cancellation of a visit by a major donor who would have sponsored a new child-protection program.

A Pakistani Taliban faction claimed responsibility earlier this month for abducting the two aid workers, a German and an Italian, who reportedly are being held somewhere in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Italy's Foreign Ministry has named its kidnapped citizen as Giovanni Lo Porto, but German authorities have declined to name their national. Both worked for Welthungerhilfe (World Hunger Aid), a relief organization based in Bonn, Germany.

Days after they were abducted, a Kenyan worker for CARE International, a U.S.-based charity, disappeared while working in a flood-affected area in southern Pakistan. Police officials think that bandits, rather than Islamic militants, are holding him.

Western aid groups' decision also may have been influenced by Pakistan's detention of Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor who operated a fake vaccination program for the CIA in an attempt to help find Osama bin Laden when the terrorist leader was thought to be hiding in the town of Abbottabad, north of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

The CIA branded the operation a Save the Children program, but the charity has denied any involvement. It's confirmed, however, that Afridi participated in two of its training courses in 2008 and 2010, after being nominated by the Pakistani Ministry of Health.

A Pakistani judicial commission, formed to investigate how bin Laden managed to live without detection by the security agencies, ordered the government last month to charge Afridi with treason. If he's convicted, he could face the death penalty.

On Feb. 4, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., submitted a bill to the House of Representatives seeking U.S. citizenship for Afridi.

While the Pakistani government hasn't restricted the operations of Western relief agencies, aid workers said they regularly faced hostility from security operatives.

"They'll pass remarks like, 'You don't know what happens to people kidnapped by militants,' "Shah said. "We NGOs get the distinct impression that we're not welcome."

Security operatives also have pressured relief agencies to share data from surveys of flood-affected families, but the agencies refused on the grounds that confidentiality agreements with their donors protected the information.

The tensions between security authorities and Western agencies were palpable when a McClatchy correspondent recently traveled to Multan. In the airport parking lot, a man who claimed to be a military intelligence operative pointedly inquired about the identity of the "foreigner."

Security analysts said the four masked, armed kidnappers who stormed the Multan office of Welthungerhilfe on Jan. 20 also had an American employee at their mercy, but decided to leave her behind unharmed.

Asim Tanvir, a Multan-based analyst who briefly met the woman the day after the incident, described her as an American in her mid-20s, of medium build with shoulder-length brown hair. The woman left Multan that day.

"She didn't know why they had let her go, and speculated that it may have been a humanitarian gesture to her as a woman," Tanvir said.

The kidnappers had spoken neither in Urdu, the national language, or Punjabi and Seraiki, the regional languages, the woman told Tanvir.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad had no information about the woman.

(Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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For more coverage visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page.

McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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